Maradona: punk-rock footballing genius

The only thing more miraculous than his playing ability is the fact that Diego Maradona is still alive.

Duleep Allirajah

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Diego Maradona: Genius or Cheat? Discuss.

The debate has been raging for over 20 years and opinions are still bitterly divided, no more so than in Britain where he’s loved and loathed in equal measure. I’ve been thinking about writing this article for years. And, to be honest, I fully expected that I’d be writing it as an obituary.

I never expected to see Diego Maradona appointed as coach of the Argentina national team. He should have been pushing up the daisies by now, but instead there he was this week breezing into Glasgow Airport to a hero’s reception. The great man continues to confound expectations. Every football pundit is now predicting that Maradona’s tenure as Argentina coach will end in tears. I think it will end in tears. Most of Argentina thinks it will end in tears. But with Maradona, you never quite know.

In Scotland, as in Argentina, Maradona is revered. The Tartan Army haven’t had much to sing about for the last two decades or so. But they have had Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal against England at the 1986 World Cup. And naturally they’ve been making a song and dance about it ever since. To the tune of the Hokey Cokey they sing:

You put your left arm in, your left arm out,
In, out, in, out, you shake it all about.
You do the Maradona and you score a goal.
That’s what it’s all about.
Oh, Diego Maradona, Oh Diego Maradona, Oh Diego Maradona;
He put the English out, out, out!

In some versions, there’s a second verse in honour of Sweden’s Tomas Brolin, but it doesn’t quite pack the same lyrical punch. Although I’m an England fan, I have to admit this song always makes me chuckle. Yes, it’s a bit sad that the Sweaties are singing about something that happened 22 years ago, but until the English stop going on about 1966, I guess they’re entitled to do so. And it sure beats yet another off-key rendition of God Save the Queen from the England faithful.

Not that the Scotland assistant coach Terry Butcher was singing the Maradona song at Hampden Park on Wednesday night when Scotland lost 1-0 to Argentina. Butcher was one of the hapless England defenders whom Maradona slalomed past imperiously on his way to scoring Argentina’s second in that World Cup encounter. But whereas football fans are still debating whether that goal was the greatest ever, Butcher, like many Englishmen, is still bitter about the handball for the first (you can see both goals via YouTube below).

‘I’ll never forgive him because it’s not nice to lose in those circumstances’, said Butcher. ‘I wouldn’t want to speak to him.’ Maradona himself was unconcerned. ‘I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. If Butcher doesn’t shake my hand, I’ll still be alive tomorrow’, he told a press conference. (To be fair, I don’t think too many people would lose sleep because Terry Butcher hates them. Except maybe Terry Butcher’s wife, and even that’s debatable.)

Butcher is not the only person who refuses to forgive Maradona. On Radio 5 Live, Alan Green was in trademark sanctimonious mode. It’s Greenie’s default setting. ‘He’s a cheat’, declared the Ulsterman. ‘He’s a shocking example for young people.’ And maybe this is why I’m in the ‘Maradona is a godlike genius’ camp. I love his ‘fuck you’, punk-rock attitude.

I love the fact that, in a society in which apologising for the sins of the past has become de rigeur, Maradona still refuses to say sorry. ‘England won the World Cup in 1966 with a goal that didn’t cross the line, so I don’t think it’s fair that anyone should judge me when stuff like that went on’, he said this week. In fact, it is a source of pride to Maradona that he cheated the English – ‘picking the pocket of an Englishman’ was how he described his Hand of God goal. He has described Argentina’s victory over England as ‘like recovering a little bit of the Malvinas’.

But it’s not just Maradona’s ballsy attitude that rocks. The reason that I’d pay good money just to see Maradona tie his shoelaces is the same reason that the Manchester United players were star-struck when he visited the club’s training ground last week. ‘We were like school kids around a star coming to school’, admitted Rio Ferdinand. What is it about Maradona that makes even England internationals swoon in his presence? Quite simply, Maradona is a genius. Certainly the greatest footballer of his generation, if not the greatest of all time.

Danny Blanchflower famously said: ‘Football is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish.’ To me, Maradona is glory personified. There are very few footballers who transcend club allegiances, who you’d pay to watch regardless of which club you support. I once went to see Wimbledon versus Manchester United. Why? Just to see Eric Cantona play football. Simple as. I don’t care that he kung-fu kicked a Palace fan. I’m just glad that I can tell my grandchildren that I’ve seen the legendary Frenchman.

Cantona, like Maradona, was a mercurial talent with a bad-boy reputation. Maradona, however, was badder to the power of 10. And that, to be honest, simply adds to his appeal. My admiration for Maradona only increased after reading Hand of God, Jimmy Burns’ unauthorised warts-and-all (and then some more warts) biography. Cantona once said of Maradona: ‘I prefer someone who uses cocaine on a Wednesday and plays at the weekend.’ Given his excessive lifestyle – the cocaine, the alcohol, the whores, the late parties, and the quack medicines – it’s a wonder that Maradona could get out of bed at the weekend let alone lead Argentina to two World Cup finals and win two Serie A titles as well as the UEFA Cup with Napoli.

The words ‘legend’ and ‘genius’ are used rather too promiscuously these days. But in Maradona’s case they are entirely justified. Sure, he cheated the English. But at least we were cheated by the greatest.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Maradona v England, Mexico 1986:

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